GAETANO DONIZETTI’S DON PASQUALE
Sir Denis Forman sums up Don Pasquale in his outrageously entertaining and unconventional opera handbook, “A Night at the Opera”:
The one where the rich old bachelor is conned into ‘marrying’ an apparently nice young lady who makes his life hell until she gets what she wants.
Written for Paris and performed with the four most celebrated singers of the day, Don Pasquale is Donizetti’s most masterful comic opera. It combines the product of his lyrical gift for melody with that of his comical genius.
One of the greatest accomplishments of opera buffa, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is in three acts to a libretto by the composer and Giovanni Ruffini. Its first performance was in Paris, on January 3, 1843 at the Theatre des Italiens. When Donizetti composed Don Pasquale, he was already at the height of his career. He composed it over a period of 11 days in November 1842, although it took much longer to write the orchestra parts and meet the individual needs of the different performers. The work was a sensational success with audience and critics, and Don Pasquale was an immediate triumph in opera houses throughout the world. It is Donizetti’s last great success and remains popular to this day.
Plot of Don Pasquale:
Don Pasquale (comic bass) is furious because his nephew and heir Ernesto (tenor) will not agree to a marriage of convenience which has been arranged for him with a staid and wealthy lady. Doctor Malatesta (baritone), a friend of Ernesto, pretends to be on Don Pasquale’s side. He cunningly suggests that Don Pasquale should punish his young nephew by taking a wife himself, and recommends his own sister. The idea appeals to the old man, and he begs his friend to introduce him to her. Malatesta then issues instructions to Norina (soprano), a young and beautiful widow with whom Ernesto is in love. Norina’s job is to play the part of the non-existent sister Sofronia, charm Don Pasquale and then, once a fake marriage contract has been signed, drive him mad with her caprices. The old man is conquered by the sweetness of the alleged Sofronia and asks if he can sign the contract straightaway.
No sooner has this been done than Norina begins her transformation: she becomes shameless and arrogant and throws Don Pasquale into despair. On one occasion, Don Pasquale tries to stop his wife from going to the theater, whereupon Norina simply gives the poor old man a slap on the face and then, as she goes out, drops one of Ernesto’s visiting-cards, on which is written a rendezvous with her for that evening in the garden.
Don Pasquale sends for Doctor Malatesta to help him surprise his wife. When Don Pasquale arrives, Ernesto escapes without being recognized, and the old man is furious. At this point Malatesta suggests Pasquale tell his wife that Norina, Ernesto’s wife-to-be, will be arriving to stay at their house the next day. Sofronia declares that she will not tolerate such an affront and will be leaving, but fearing a trick, asks to come to the wedding. Don Pasquale agrees. Now the whole conspiracy is revealed to him. At first, Don Pasquale is angry, but then feels happy to be rid of Sofronia and gives his blessing to the marriage of Norina and Ernesto.
CHARLES GOUNOD’S FAUST
Charles Gounod had the idea of an opera based on the Faust legend some ten years before he started serious work on his Faust. His fourth opera, in its first form, Gounod wildly overwrote the work, some say an hour longer than at the first performance. Whole chunks were pulled out, some new ones put in, including a number from an earlier opera that had been aborted (Ivan The Terrible). This was the Soldiers’ Chorus, a number that would soon sweep the world and would have made Gounod a millionaire had mechanical rights been operative in his day.
Gounod gave everything he had to the composition of the work, but it was not warmly received and only earned the recognition it deserved after being perfromed in Germany and Italy. To this day, Faust is regarded as Gounod’s best opera.
Gounod’s gift was for lyricisim of high order, but also for a theatrical effectiveness which has over the years brought audiences to opera. The popularity of Faust in the nineteenth century and the frequency with which it was given then were so great that the Metropolitan Opera in New York came for a time to be known as the Faustspielhaus!
Plot of Faust:
The aged philosopher Faust ponders with deep regret his solitary life and how devoid it is of youthfulness and love. He is about to take poison when Mephistopheles appears to him dressed as a gentleman and offers him youth and pleasures in exchange for his soul. Faust hesitates, but when he sees a vision o f Marguerite conjured up by Mephistopheles, he agrees to the pact. Not long after, there is a public holiday. Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, is leaving to go to war and entrusts his sister to the care of Siebel, a student who is in love with her.
Faust, now transformed into a young knight, approaches Marguerite and asks if he may escort her home. The young woman refuses and sets off on her own, but Mephistopheles reassures Faust, promising him that Marguerite will be his. In Marguerite’s garden, Faust is deeply moved by her charm. He no longer wants to seduce her, but Mephistopheles urges him not to delay. In the night, Marguerite appears on her balcony and calls to Faust. He hurries to her side. Later, Marguerite, who is now expecting a child, cannot even pray anymore because Mephistopheles prevents her from doing so.
Now back from the war, Valentin learns that Faust has seduced his sister, challenges him to a duel, but is mortally wounded. Marguerite, now in prison awaiting execution, has gone mad and has killed Faust’s child. Faust comes to see her. He attempts to persuade her to escape with him, but Marguerite becomes delirious, and after calling on God to forgive her, she dies. A choir of angels accompanies Marguerite’s soul to heaven, while Faust is left praying on his knees.